Monday, October 10, 2011

Removal of Fuel Subsidy: A Crisis of Trust By Abimbola Lagunju

It has not yet dawned on the Nigerian government that, trust between the governed and the government is a prerequisite for acceptance of any government policy. It will be an understatement to say that there has never been any mutual trust between any government in power, military or “democratic” and the Nigerian people. Not that Nigerians are a skeptical lot, but over and over again, all the governments that have been in power in this country have betrayed in big and small ways whatever trust people had vested in them. The Nigerian political class has not shown or done anything to gain the trust and inspire confidence in the people. And Nigerians have been forced by these circumstances to choose between being perceived and treated as naïve and being outrightly skeptical. Many have chosen the latter.

Unfortunately, this fact is lost on the Nigerian political class that prefers to see Nigerians as naïve and treat them as such. Nigerian politicians tend to think that winning at a ballot confers a blanket trust. – a license to invent and sell lies as truths. They employ those that they refer to as “spin doctors” to say everything but the truth. Spin doctors! And these individuals revel not only in being called “spin doctors” but also in selling anything but the truth. Truth has become a rare commodity in this democratic dispensation.

There are many versions of truth to any event in Nigeria, and in most cases all of these versions are outright lies. Truth sometime is found in the streets in the rumor web, and very often, every Nigerian borrows or develops his own truth of the same event. And indeed, our political class has invented truth-twisting vocabulary to perfect their deception. “Arrested” by an anti-corruption agency has now become “invited” by the same agency in the Nigerian political vocabulary. “See them” means “corrupt them”.  “Situation under control” means nothing is being done. Haba! We do not know what to believe anymore. And the Nigerian press does not help in elucidating the truth – they report all the versions of fictitious “truths” using the twisted political vocabulary without any criticism or analysis.

Good governance, security, anti-corruption war, generation and constant supply of electricity, creation of employment opportunities for the youths, improvement of infrastructure and the economy have all become declarations of good intentions on the pages of newspapers. It is not unusual to read a sentence like “How to generate employment in Nigeria – by a Minister” or another like Nigeria can reach great heights if….by a Party Chieftain”.  Just a fleeting inspiration and after their speech, they do nothing. And that is, if they wrote the speech in the first instance. Nigerian politicians in the position of power have learnt not to do what they say, and indeed to do the contrary of their declarations. Road are tarred on the pages of the newspaper. Electricity has been so much generated on the pages of newspapers that we should be exporting the excess by now. Our politicians have poisoned the polity and have made lies and half-truths a way of life in almost all the spheres of Nigerian life.

With a long history of betrayal of trust, how does the government think it can sell any of its policies and particularly the most recent one on the removal of oil subsidy to a skeptical nation? The chances are slim. There are many doubts about the over-flogged so-called benefits of this policy. Dr. Leonard Karshima Shilgba in a recent article posted on Saharareporters asked “what has the Nigerian government been using the annual savings from sovereign debts to do in the past 5 years? If the federal government has nothing to show for the debt cancellation or “forgiveness” five years after, why should Nigerians trust that same government to use whatever savings from fuel subsidy?” There is a serious crisis of trust.

But there must be a way forward – the government must work for the people and somehow a bridge must be made between the governed and the government. The people have already given out the contract and must find a way to for these employees to work for them.
A possible way out was inadvertently advanced by a group of northern senators as was reported by the Nation Newspaper on 8th October this year. The senators conditioned their support to the Bill on removal of subsidy! As reported by the Nation, “The conditions are: the government should account for past fuel subsidy and publish the names of those who have been benefiting from it in the past; and the government should come up with concrete plans or agenda on what it will use the funds gained from the withdrawal of fuel subsidy for.” Conditioned support!

There are four things to glean from the conditions demanded by the senators. Firstly, they are demanding that the government tells the truth, nothing but the whole truth on the “what”, the “who” and the “how” of current oil subsidy. This simply means that simple truth is elusive within and among the Nigerian political class. Secondly, the senators are claiming that contrary to what the “spin doctors” of the government are claiming as the potential benefits of the removal of the subsidy, the government has not really done any homework on how they will go about the use of the funds they intend to liberate by the removal. According to the Nation newspaper, one senator, “who spoke in confidence, said: “Some of us are against the withdrawal of subsidy because the government has no concrete plan in place to cushion the effects of the policy.” Thirdly, whenever truth escapes from its confinements, it comes in an anonymous form from the Nigerian political class. None of the senators who bared their minds on the Bill wanted their names to be associated with the newspaper story. They preferred to be anonymous. They made telling the truth to look like a crime. Fourthly and finally, Nigerians can indeed begin to condition their support and trust in any government policy. This will be a new development in the relationship between those entrusted with governance and their employers, the people.

In addition to the two conditions posited by the senators on the removal of oil subsidy, I will like to add some more and I invite the readers to add theirs too. Like many other things shrouded in mystery in our country, we have no idea how many vehicles the Nigerian state at all levels of government, legislature, judiciary and parastatal institutions has. We will like to know. This is condition Number 1. We will like to know how much of tax payers money is used to fuel these vehicles. This is condition number 2. We will like to know how much the tax payer will have to pay to fuel these vehicles when the subsidy is removed and what percentage of the gains of the removal of the subsidy does this represent? This is condition 3. The same for generators – Condition 4. We will like to know by how much the increase in the travel expenses of our ever-travelling government officials and legislators will eat into the purported gains of the removal of the subsidy – condition 5. We will like to know how much will be left for “the development of the economy and opportunity for the greater number of people.” This is simple mathematics and we will like to know. And we will like to know whose idea this is anyway? World Bank or home grown? And finally, what if the white elephant idea fails and dies a couple of years into implementation? Which zoo-keeper is going to answer?

Democracy is defined as a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It says “for the people” and not against the people as Governor Rotimi Amaechi will like us to believe when, of the removal of the fuel subsidy, he said, “We must learn to take very difficult decisions…” For the avoidance of doubt, we do not, at least here in this country, elect people to make life difficult for the citizenry. Our democracy is a young one, and if it will survive, it is not the people that must make the sacrifice; it is those whom we have elected into power.

And what sacrifice are we asking of them? Simple truth, transparency and good governance.

Is this too much to ask?

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